February 10, 2010

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After School Nightmare Volume 2

Written by Setona Mizushiro
Illustrated by Setona Mizushiro
Go Comi

As we pick up the story in Volume 2, high school student Mashiro Ichijo finds himself in an odd position. He's half man, half woman, and it seems that secret is not so well guarded at school. He is also required to participate in a strange class that induces sleep and turns his inward fears outward in a dreamworld that others inhabit.

His only way out is to defeat his fears, but that's true of the others as well--and only one can do it at a time. As if battling for his sanity once a week isn't bad enough, he has a complicated relationship with the two others on the cover. To his right is Sou, who may also be sharing his nightmare and is in love with him/her. To his left is Kureha, a fellow dreamer who hates men but love him.

As Mashiro fights to understand himself in real life and in dreams, others join the cast--a bookish boy who crushes on Kureha and a chess prodigy who might be the key to getting Mashiro some answers--if he's willing to pay the price. Plus, the teacher of the class gets more mysterious, and Sou's sister comes into play to make matters even worse. Can Mashiro ever find a way out of his nightmare?

Those who follow my reviews regularly know that I liked the first volume of After School nightmare quite a bit. Volume 2 is even better. Now that we have the premise established, it's time to see how many twists and turns Mizushiro can take the reader down over the course of ten volumes.

This particular trade's shocking moments begin early and often, as Sou's sister reveals herself as a person who knows more than she's willing to tell about the secrets of the special class. Not even willing to spare her brother, her only motivation seems to be to cause as much pain as possible to everyone. I love the way Mizushiro sets this up in only a few brief scenes.

We also get our first clues as to how you graduate. Mashiro has the key to graduation in his grasp, but that would be far too easy. He's got far more to learn, as does the reader, about the nature of the world he's trapped in. Thus, another wins the prize, but is graduation all its cracked up to be? We get some maddening hints, but that's it.

The Kureha-Mashiro-Sou love triangle dominates most of the story this time, with all three characters seemingly unwilling to explore the truth of their relationships. They're content to snipe at each other and privately worry, because the alternative--exploring their feelings--might lead to unsettling conclusions. This ties in nicely to the dream class, and gives the waking and sleeping world a tie that might have been lacking in other hands. The nightmare world may be the sexy part of the book, but it lacks meaning without closely following what goes on in the normal world as well. Mizushiro does a great job linking the two.

However, I think the best part of After School Nightmare is the handling of the tricky issue of Mashiro's sexual ambiguity. Gender identity is a strong theme in the book because of the genetic makeup of Mashiro. He wants desperately to be a boy, but his body may not allow him to do so. In his dreams in the first volume, he was seen as a girl. Here he's portrayed more manly in the dreams, but manifests a weapon that is dual in nature, like himself. Mashiro is not comfortable with the idea that he may be a woman, but that doesn't mean the reader is supposed to wish he becomes a whole man. In fact, I think I get the exact opposite opinion from the way Mizushiro writes the supporting cast.

Take Sou, who loves him for who he is, not who he might be. Sou is by no means a person we are meant to like, but he is trying to force Mashiro to face the truth, or at least consider it. And Koreha is a man hater (with good reason) who only feels comfortable around Mashiro. Plus, isn't it a bit convenient that Mashiro has chosen the one girl in school who wouldn't ask to see him naked?

We're only beginning to see these ideas playing out in Mashiro's head, and I can't wait to see how they proceed as time goes on. I feel like there's a big, violent fall waiting for Mashiro, if he's not careful. (I'm not sure which I'd enjoy more--seeing the fall or seeing him avoid it!)

I've spent a lot of time going over the story, but I don't want to neglect the art. Mizushiro's panel structure works well with the story she wishes to tell. There's a sense of dread that lurks in the background, even when things are normal. The setting of the nightmare keeps getting a bit creepier, but it still has the veneer of regularity. (I have a feeling that's going to change.) She uses the characters' eyes to drive the story at times with wordless or near-wordless passages, and because the art is clear, this works very well. I also like the way that many of the panels are presented at an odd angle, adding to the tension. However, at no time do the pages feel crowded. Sometimes I think manga artists try to fit too much on the page, but Mizushiro seems to have it just right.

Several of my fellow manga bloggers have raved about how good After School Nightmare is. I'm only two volumes in, but I'd have to agree. This is one of the best manga I've read in quite awhile, and I'm glad I own the first six volumes so I can keep reading right away! If you like psychological drama with great writing and solid art, then find a copy of this series and start reading!